Directed by Jason Reitman, starring Kate Winslet and adapted from a novel by Joyce Maynard, Labor Day is a very bad movie with a very good pedigree. Everything about it — the poster of the two attractive leads embracing; the swooning power ballads in the trailer; the convenient just-in-time-for-Valentine’s-Day release date — signifies that it’s a full-on weepie, an old-fashioned “women’s picture” that aims to get both hands around whatever bruised, dissatisfied or just plain naïve concepts its female viewers may have of romance and squeeze until it wrings forth our salty, plentiful tears. Unfortunately, it fails to stick the landing. Though it attempts to tell a story about how one woman is saved by the redemptive power of love, Labor Day is actually a tribute to the healing power of Stockholm syndrome.
I don’t inherently object to chick flicks. Granted, the ideas of “perfect romance” put forth by these movies are often a little silly, but that’s true of so-called “serious” dramas, too. In fact, I find the contempt in which these girly movies are frequently held to be disturbing and pretty darn sexist. Notice, for example, how many male critics are jumping at the chance to complain about how awful Labor Day is, and how often they cite the unrealistic masculine perfection of its romantic lead Frank — he’s so nurturing! He never stops doing chores! — as one of their reasons for disliking the film. A few weeks ago, those same critics had no such complaints about the partner-coddling, chore-doing female lead of Her. So I don’t blame Labor Day for trying to provide the ladies with a little wish-fulfillment in the form of an aesthetically pleasing, problem-solving dude. I do blame it, however, for internalizing our culture’s contempt for women so profoundly that it seems entirely unaware of how insulting its ideas of “wish-fulfillment” are.
To do a bit of plot recap: Kate Winslet plays Adele, a woman whose husband left her for his secretary and plunged her into a spiral of harrowing depression, largely signified by the fact that Kate Winslet has messy hair and doesn’t seem to be wearing makeup. We are informed that it was not losing her husband, but “losing love itself” that ruined Adele; still, it’s apparent that being single has rendered Adele completely unable to function. It’s not just that she can’t be happy or successful without a boyfriend; she can’t even leave the house without assistance. Her son Henry, played by Gattlin Griffith, feels responsible for taking care of his fragile mother. He helpfully does things like take her out on “dates” and listen to her talk extensively about why she enjoys sex, which tilts the movie into creepster territory long before Frank even shows up.
Alas, show up he does, in the form of Josh Brolin, who first makes his appearance while Adele and Henry are out shopping. By threatening Henry’s life, Frank manages to get into their car and then into their home, where he promptly ties Adele to a chair. At some point during this sequence of events, we learn that Frank is a convict, currently fleeing an 18-year prison sentence for murder.
Somewhere during the ensuing heavily eroticized close-ups of Frank binding Adele’s bare foot, it all goes pear-shaped. With Adele thus secured, Frank sets about making a delicious chili to spoon-feed to her. And once he’s untied her — tying her up in the first place, he thoughtfully informs them, is a way of making sure Adele could claim that she’d been kidnapped; there’s no need for it now that she’s duly un-incriminated — he putters about their house doing manly tasks like fixing the car, preventing dry rot in the bathroom, putting grease on squeaky door hinges, and teaching everyone how to make peach pie in the single longest man-narrates-his-own-cooking sequence I’ve seen outside of the Food Network.
Frank, we are evidently to understand, is the stabilizing father figure that both Adele and Henry need. He’s the burly-yet-sensitive savior who can redeem this family from the tragedy of single-motherhood and put it back on course toward properly wed heterosexual paradise. Soon enough, Kate Winslet’s hair looks great again, and Adele is so entirely in love that she’s packing up all their belongings in the station wagon so they can all flee together to Canada.
There’s just one small problem: the issue of what happened to the last family where Frank got to play patriarch. For indeed, Frank has been wed before. Unfortunately, he murdered said first wife after discovering that she’d had an affair, which led him to doubt the paternity of his infant child. The film presents this as an “accident:” Frank shoved his wife in response to her snippiness about the baby’s genetics, causing her to fatally knock her head on the radiator. I think it’s safe to say, however, that explaining away your wife’s death with “it was just a bit of domestic violence gone wrong” won’t win you any Father Of The Year trophies.
At least, it won’t outside of the fictional universe of Labor Day. In this case, the narrative of Frank’s domestic abuse and murder is actually invoked as a story of victimhood: It’s the reason why the law wants to separate this sad, saintly man from his much-beloved new family. (What happened to the old family, specifically his orphaned son, is never addressed.) We’re clearly supposed to see Frank as a casualty of circumstance and his first wife’s chicanery — he’s so “sensitive” and loving toward the well-behaved Adele, after all — just like we’re meant to excuse his physical aggression when he feels frightened and his skill at intimidating his way into the homes of strangers. “I’ve never intentionally hurt anyone in my life,” Frank informs a tied-up Adele, but it’s distinctly hard to believe.
Nevertheless, all of this is secondary to his brooding machismo, his handiness around the house, the way he proclaims he’s come to “save” Adele, and how much Adele wants to be saved. According to Labor Day, it doesn’t matter how many violent crimes you’ve committed, so long as you provide company for a lonely woman.
I left Labor Day entirely bewildered, wondering how so many talented people could have made such a mess. Kate Winslet is the reigning queen of the tear-jerker: At various points in my life, Titanic, Sense and Sensibility, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind all made me cry my eyes out. She’s also openly espoused feminist politics in her off-hours. Similarly, Jason Reitman has proven many times that he’s able to deliver compelling, non-stereotypical female characters and female stories. It’s hard to see how the guy who gave us Vera Farmiga in Up In The Air and Charlize Theron in Young Adult was also able to produce “My Ex-Wife Died For Being A Slut: A Love Story.” It’s tempting to put the blame on Maynard — it is her novel — but even she has written convincingly of the problems created by putting up with predatory male behavior in the name of love.
The responsibility for Labor Day seems to lie not with any one person, then, but with our culture’s ideas of “romance.” After all, this certainly isn’t the first movie ever made about someone who falls in love with her kidnapper. Something in our shared idea of love keeps producing these scenarios: We’ve normalized abuse, celebrated “forcefulness” as an ideal element of masculinity, and framed female independence as pathological and damaging. And now, we have Labor Day, which argues that it’s better for a woman to have a murderer sharing her bedroom and raising her son than it is for her to be alone.
It’s not spoiling too much to say that the fleeing-to-Canada plan is a misfire. But even after everything goes awry, we are told — very explicitly — that Frank and Adele really do have a lifelong love, that Frank really is the best thing that ever happened to Adele and that being with him really can solve all of her problems.
As the credits roll, we’re supposed to be misty-eyed and uplifted, assured that true love is possible despite all obstacles. Ultimately, though, my primary takeaway was the hope that Adele spends any fights with Frank standing well away from the radiator.
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Jude Ellison Sady Doyle is an In These Times contributing writer. They are the author of Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… and Why (Melville House, 2016) and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beatdown. You can follow them on Twitter at @sadydoyle.